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Last week, the world discovered that Jerrie Cobb, a pioneer for women in aviation, passed away at the age of 88. She died on March 18, after a short illness.
Geraldyn Cobb, Jerrie for short, grew up in Oklahoma. It was there that she developed her love of flying. She was just 12 years old when she first flew a plane and earned her pilot’s license by the time she was 16. By the age of 21, she was delivering fighters and bombers worldwide for our post-World War II forces. In 1959, she was invited by Dr. Randy Lovelace to participate in medical and stress tests to see if she was qualified to be a NASA astronaut.
This is why Cobb is sometimes called the first female astronaut candidate, though it was done without NASA’s knowledge or permission. Lovelace recruited 12 other women — who would later be known as the Mercury 13 — to undergo these tests, in which they would equal, or even surpass, their male counterparts who would become the Mercury 7.
Despite the fact that the program was cancelled once NASA got wind of it, Cobb never rested in her desire for a space flight. Many have said that her relentless campaign turned off the higher ups at NASA, but Cobb always did what she needed to in order to advocate for herself and her fellow women. She cast a spotlight on the sexism within NASA's ranks. Cobb laid the groundwork for the first American female astronauts a few decades later, and she, along with the surviving Mercury 13, were invited to Eileen Collins’ Space Shuttle flight in 1995 — the first to be commanded by a woman.
This failure might be why Cobb is best known; however, it did not define her life. She was the first woman to fly at the Paris Air Show and held three different world flying records by 1960. When she discovered that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had set foot on the moon, she was in the Amazon rainforest and danced on the wings of her airplane.
She spent much of the 1970s and '80s charting new plane routes across the Amazon rainforest, delivering supplies and medication to the indigenous people. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
Cobb never made it to space during her lifetime. She was never officially an astronaut. However, her impact on the space program as we know it is outsized. We have a long way to go before things are truly equal on this Earth and in the stars above us. But Cobb would likely have smiled knowing her death was announced to the world the same week that NASA chose to extend astronaut Christina Koch’s mission, for which she’ll hold the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman.